Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  
siteseer

Book Review: Sabertooth

Recommended Posts

siteseer
a book review of:


"Sabertooth" written and illustrated by Mauricio Anton. 2013. Indiana University Press. 243 pages. Suggested Retail: $50 USD.


By the time the ancestors of humans were walking upright, saber-toothed cats had already established themselves as apex predators in Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America. Early humans tried to keep a safe distance but we can imagine that sabercats sometimes preyed upon them. As humans evolved over the next few million years, developing increasingly advanced tools, they began to compete successfully with them and other large predators. However, our species, Homo sapiens, which dates back about 100 thousand years, has no cultural memory of sabercats - not even a cave painting. The last of the them died out in that phantom zone sometime after the last ice age and just before our recorded history.


The cover artwork is a photo-realistic portrait of Megantereon, a Pliocene-Pleistocene sabercat. However, this book is not about only one group within the cat family nor does it expand its coverage just enough to include the other saber-toothed mammal groups. It focuses on the adaptation itself, the elongated canine teeth. It is a specialization bearing a history longer than that of the cat family - even more ancient than any of the mammals from the age of dinosaurs.


The author, Mauricio Anton, is one of the premier paleoartists in the publishing and scientific worlds. He was already well-known for his sharp eye for anatomical detail and realistic backgrounds by the time of his first mainstream collaboration with paleontologist Alan Turner (1947-2012). That 1997 book, "The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives," added science enthusiasts, amateur fossil collectors, and wildlife art aficionados to his ever-increasing fan base. Since then, he has authored and co-authored a number of popular books as well as technical articles.


The book is divided into five chapters. The first one defines terms and introduces the various saber-toothed groups while Chapter 2 reviews the fossil deposits that have yielded their remains. Anton also offers the big picture - a walk through time with drifting continents, transitioning environments, evolving ecosystems, and disrupting extinctions.


Chapter 3 profiles the known groups of sabertooths going into some detail when they are known from at least nearly-complete skeletons. The reader begins to understand the anatomical differences and evolutionary distances between groups that might have been previously thought of as very similar and closely-related.


Anton fleshes-out his subjects in Chapter 4. The reader is shown how well-preserved fossil bones can lead to a clear idea of the physical abilities and limitations of the animals when they were alive. It is an education in how the elongated canine teeth evolved in concert with other adaptations to allow sabertooths to specialize in quickly subduing and killing certain prey. Examples from the fossil record testify to what a tough life that could be.


The last chapter addresses the extinctions of the various groups. It looks back on how scientists have interpreted the effectiveness of the sabertooth adaptation and reviews the episodes of extinction for each of the groups before considering the causes in each case.


It was a given that this book was going to be beautifully-illustrated. It is also abundantly-illustrated with several of Anton’s paintings and drawings. He shows a variety of animals on the attack, in retreat, and at rest. He also shows a standing animal from different angles. He demonstrates how skeletal and muscular details lead to noticeable differences in head and body shapes. Restoring the in-life appearance of sabercats is not simply a matter of painting sabers onto a leopard's or lion's head.


In this book Anton writes for the layman and he is good at it. He mixes in technical terms within a flow of everyday language so the inexperienced but engaged reader will be able to follow along.


It is hard to find fault with this book and the missteps are minor. He employs "dispersions" when he should have said "dispersals." He uses the word "apparition" instead of "appearance" on pages 73, 76, and 178. It could be said that these were his mistakes but this is also the kind of error that should have been caught by an editor at the publishing company.


Less of an error and more of a dying tendency among many paleontologists is Anton's use of "Tertiary" as a time unit. "Tertiary" is an old-fashioned term that accounted for about 97% of the Cenozoic Era - everything minus the Pleistocene and Holocene Epochs. It is about as logical as dividing the last two thousand years of human history into two units: one from the year 0 to 1950; the second from 1950 to the current year. Therefore, most scientists have switched to using "Paleogene" and "Neogene" as the broader time divisions because they are more equal in time span and more useful as backgrounds for discussing longterm geologic, biologic, and climatic trends.


I recommend Mauricio Anton’s ”Sabertooth" to readers interested in mammals and carnivores of any class. It will help an amateur fossil collector or budding paleontologist to understand a little more of the wider diversity of animals that have existed across time - the numerous families that no human ever saw alive. It clarifies the distinction between "cat" and "cat-like,” illustrating it in more detail than other popular science books. This book also underlines the fragility of life at any level in the food chain.



Jess

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Auspex

I could definitely use some rounding-out in my understanding of the subjects of this book, and it sounds like he approaches them in their own context. Speaking for myself, I think a quirky vocabulary adds to the charm of reading ;)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
ashcraft

Oh, you would love some of the papers that I get then.

The only positive thing about 10th graders is, they aren't 9th graders.

Brent Ashcraft

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Triceratops

Sounds like an interesting book, thanks for sharing!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

Sign in to follow this  

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×